Net Dissidents Jailed in China

Julia Scheeres, Wired Magazine: As part of an ongoing attempt to clamp down on Internet speech, the Chinese government sentences five members of the Falun Gong religious group to prison for posting an article critical of authorities.

In its ongoing repression of Internet speech, the Chinese government has sentenced five Falun Gong members to prison for posting an article to a discussion board that accused authorities of mistreating a jailed colleague.

In a terse news story, the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, stated Feb. 19 that a court in western Chongqing found the three men and two women guilty of “vilifying the government’s image through spreading fabricated stories on persecution of cult practitioners” and had given them prison terms of five to 14 years.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group that monitors free speech worldwide, has called for the release of the now 22 Falun Gong members imprisoned for publishing news on the Internet about the outlawed spiritual movement…

“The crackdown on members of this spiritual movement is completely unjustified,” said Julien Pain, who researches Internet speech issues for the group. “The five Internet users were convicted for posting online what is already very well-known to human rights organizations, that members of Falun Gong are systematically tortured in prison.”

Falun Gong — a spiritual discipline that combines exercise and meditation — had an estimated 70 million adherents before President Jiang Zemin outlawed the movement in 1999, calling it a doomsday cult. Activists say more than 800 Falun Gong members have died in police custody since the ban.

The Feb. 19 sentencing is symptomatic of the communist government’s struggle to control online content in a country that is second only to the United States in number of Internet users. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, 79.5 million Chinese are connected to the World Wide Web.

As China’s Internet economy burgeons, so have the government’s attempts to battle “subversive” content on home computers and in the country’s 110,000 cybercafes. According to some estimates, China employs 30,000 technocrats to police the Internet.

Laws regulating the Internet include the expected prohibitions on software piracy and the creation of software viruses, but also nebulous phraseology, such as a ban on “harmful information” that “spreads superstition,” said Bobson Wong, a specialist in Chinese Internet culture.

“The problem with China’s Internet restrictions is that they’re so vague,” Wong said.

“Most people know that there are certain taboo topics that can’t be discussed online — Tiananmen, Falun Gong, criticism of high-level officials. Anybody who is even remotely affiliated with these topics tends to be prosecuted.”

Amnesty International recorded the arrests of 54 people between November 2002 and January 2004 for online activities ranging from calling for government reform in a chat room to signing an online petition for the release of a Falun Gong member.

In a recent report, the group said it believed this number is merely a fraction of the real number of people detained in China for expressing their views online. In May 2003 alone, for example, Xinhua reported that more than 100 people were arrested for “spreading rumors” about SARS over the Internet or through phone text messages.

In addition to forcing ISPs and Internet cafes to use filtering software, government minders hand delete individual messages from discussion boards and change the domain name server records of forbidden sites so visitors are rerouted to authorized pages.

To thwart censorship, many Internet users employ proxy networks, which act as portals to other sites and allow users to hide their computers’ IP addresses. Bill Xia, a Chinese immigrant who founded a North Carolina company that created a proxy network called DynaWeb, says “tens of thousands” of Chinese use his product every day.

“The Internet gave dissidents a useful means to avoid state censorship, in a country where there’s no independent media,” said Pain, the Reporters Without Borders researcher. “The Chinese authorities are trying to censor the Internet and to track down cyberdissidents. But given the huge amount of information that is being published, they can’t succeed totally.”

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